A routine, care and gratitude: Inside the Boynuyogun camp at the Turkish-Syrian border

b_172_129_16777215_00_images_ara-turkeysyria-somaskanda.jpegGUEVECCI, Turkey - Driving east out of the populated Turkish city of Antakya, green fields and hills of olive trees make up a lush landscape scarce of people or dwellings. But nearing the Syrian border, the Boynuyogun camp greets like a desert tent encampment, rising out of nowhere.

Rows upon rows of hundreds of neat white tents bearing the Red Crescent logo are shrouded by a mesh fence covered in white cloth to keep outsiders from peering in. The only neighbors around are a few cattle grazing the fields. And behind the fence, young boys sit on top of a retaining wall, waving at passersby and shouting "Hello, how are you?" as a few faces appear from behind the fence, hungry for communication with the outside world.

Seeing what lies on the other side means getting past the several soldiers who are already standing along the road making sure cars don't stop or park around the fenced area. They guard a dirt road, which runs along the south side of the camp, giving way to the first of two gates. That in turn opens up to an area with a dozen more soldiers. Some standing tall, keeping guard, while others sit at a table underneath an open tent, shielding them from the scorching sun still burning strong at five in the afternoon.

"At the moment, we do not need international assistance, we have everything under control," said Tekin Kucukali, head of the Turkish Red Crescent, told reporters in the border town of Guvecci last week. "We have the capacity to provide aid to 250,000 people if necessary." But if the situation extends into winter, the Red Crescent says it will need the assistance of other aid organizations to provide for the growing amount of refugees. Currently there are 10,659 Syrians in five camps, according to the Turkish Prime Ministry Disaster & Emergency Management Directorate (AFAD). Altogether, officials have set up 2,495 tents, distributed 16,629 blankets and give out 10,695 beds.

Inside Boynuyogun camp, the refugees have fallen into the rhythm of a routine. Men and women gather in groups at the mouth of their tents, drinking tea and talking as children weave in and out of the rows of white tarpaulin. By only listening to the noise, it sounds like one is walking through a big park instead of a refugee camp.

Further down the row, an impromptu barber shop has sprung up next to one of the bathroom facilities, and men sit as their beards are trimmed. Next to it, children play on one of two playgrounds, chasing each other around the spiraling slide and swing sets, just like on any other playground. While children amuse themselves on the brand new equipments, as good as any found in German cities, around two dozen men focus on a ball making its way back and forth over a net on the volleyball court.

"They need a place to get rid of their pent up energy," says a camp official, M., who asked not to be identified by name, because camp staff don't have permission to speak with the media.

In a couple of days, the women in the camp will find their days occupied with sewing and knitting as a recreational tent for women is going up soon which will also be providing courses to those wanting to learn handicrafts. Expert seamstresses are being sought in surrounding towns to come to the camps to teach there. Inside the family tents, thick white mattresses line the floor. During the day, the families stack up four or five mattresses to create comfortable seating, covering their belongings in colorful sheets and hanging up bundles of washed clothes. At night, they pull apart the mattresses again to sleep. With a movie theater, two playgrounds and a volleyball court, Red Crescent has tried to make living conditions as comfortable as possible.

"This camp is as big as a town," M. says. Boynuyogun seems to be equipped with all the facilities needed to care for refugees including a mini-field hospital where a few doctors and psychiatrists reside around the clock. "We haven't seen any serious injuries but there have been a few births so far," smiles the camp official.

Two ambulances are parked inside the gate to take those who need more extensive care to a hospital in nearby Antakya. And every evening after the third meal of the day has been served, a movie is played on a big screen set up next to the men's prayer tent where dozens colorful rugs lay spread out on the floor. An imam from Syria who also fled his home issues the call to prayer over speakers just set up so that he can be heard throughout the camp.

"We don't get involved with the way they pray or anything," says M. "We just provide them with what they need." More than 3,000 Syrian refugees live in Boynuyogun, the third Red Crescent camp to be opened in Turkey's Hatay province.

It took 10 days to set up this "town" so that its first "guests" could move in. The Turkish Red Crescent is careful about how they identify the refugees: They call them "guests" who are being housed in "temporary shelter centers," says Emre Manav, the Turkish Foreign Ministry's local representative in Hatay.

Around 40 people work at the camp, half of which are local non-Red Crescent volunteers from the area called away from their jobs and families to help the refugees. The volunteers who prefer not to be identified say they could not refuse when the Red Crescent called and asked them to help out at Boynuyogun.

"It feels like it's my duty," says one of the volunteers. "I just hope my wife doesn't divorce me in the process because I leave the house at 7 a.m. and return at 2 a.m."

He rarely sees his family now and apologizes if he doesn't make much sense because he is operating on only 3-4 hours of sleep per night.

"We share their sorrow and their grief," he adds, referring to the Syrian refugees. "We're trying to provide the best that we can for them."

That includes listening and talking to the refugees, many of whom fled on foot. As he says this, a Syrian man comes up to him telling him relatives from Italy just flew to Hatay to visit -- he wants to set up a visiting time.

At the camp, many of the refugees, such as this man, communicate with relatives on the outside via their mobile phones. And a tall electricity poll with plug outlets has been erected close to the bathrooms where dozens of cell phones dangle from their black cords. As the man leaves, one elderly Syrian woman approaches the camp official, demanding she and her husband be reunited with their daughter, who is in the Altinozu camp 15 kilometers away.

"She's asking to see her daughter right this second, or today, and we're trying to arrange it," says the camp official. "But it doesn't always happen instantly. But reuniting families, that's also part of what we're doing."

The Red Crescent has come under sharp criticism for clamping down on access to the five refugee camps on the Turkish side of the border. Media has been denied access and journalists are not allowed to talk to any of the families inside the camp, even those who reach out to reporters approaching the sturdy steel fence. Several media organizations have written scathing critiques of Red Crescent, describing the living conditions in the camps as dismal but they actually haven't been inside.

"The international media doesn't always show Turkey from its best side -- this is why we're careful," says the official. "The media comes here and wants to get a story out of someone and that's the main concern. We have to protect the refugees from too much publicity."

When asked, the refugees express only gratitude for Turkey's role in securing their shelter and safety, smiling and shaking the official's hand as he walks through the rows of tents.

They have learned a line in Turkish, "Cok g�zel T�rkiye (Turkey is great)."

A young schoolteacher, Rana, eager to tell her story says she fled Jisr al-Shughour and made it safely to Boynuyogun with her family 10 days ago, but two of her brothers weren't as lucky: They were killed in the Syrian army's raid of her town, Jisr al-Shughour.

Still, she smiles and says, "El Hamdullah, we are alive. I am very happy to be here."

The Red Crescent also says they keep press out to protect the refugees.

"If they are talking to the media and they are seen on the other side, it will be very difficult for them to go back to Syria," said M. Still, the idea of returning home appears to be a remote possibility as President Bashar al-Assad's troops continue to push further along the border, burning homes and poisoning water supplies in small towns as they go, say Syrians who have fled to Turkey. As a result, the refugees' accommodation in the Red Crescent camps seems anything but temporary.

A team of workers in Boynuyogun are constructing new bathroom, shower and sink facilities for the families. And about 10 kilometers away, a new and much bigger 'town' is rising from the dust which will be able to accommodate another 15,000 people.

"You know us Turks," says Yusuf, a bus driver from Antakya, the nearest large city in Hatay. "We welcome them with open arms. We feel for them."

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